A “strange” fossil from 890 million years ago could be proof of very early animal life

Over two decades ago, Elizabeth Turner embarked on a trip, in helicopter, over the Mackenzie Mountains, a wide range hidden in a remote part of northwestern Canada. The mountains offer a window onto ancient past: They contain the geological remains of a ancient barrier Reef system, built from algae.

Turner, now a professor of geology at Laurentian University in Ontario, says she wanted to understand reefs at a microscopic and macroscopic level. “I’m like big like modern coral reefs; kilometres in diameter and hundreds of meters thick, “he observes.

When she first arrived in the mountains, her says it was “hindered” – there was a lot of limestone, a type of rock formed with football, but was mostly lacking in features. “The weather is just completely gray and you can’t see what’s inside, “he notes. So Turner picked up a bunch of samples, from all 890 million diyear-old ancient reef (known as Little Dal) and brought them back to the laboratory to investigate, cutting the rock in incredibly thin slices and looking at it under a microscope.

Among his champions, he noticed something unexpected.

“Only a handful of the samples, literally a handful, had this unexpectedly weird, complicated what in who said, ‘I really don’t belong here,’ “he recalls. complicated what “was a series of Worm-like microstructures. But they didn’t refer to his PhD. and so he put aside the find. She thought to herself, “I’ll take care of it with this later. “

Later it came much later, as is often the case in academic. Those unusual samples didn’t gnaw at her, but she knew they were important. She says they didn’t appear to be microbial structures, they were too complicated for That. And they had a familiar storyline that he had seen in younger rocks. Perhaps, he thought, they were associated with sponges: porous, “basic” animals with organless or nervous system that rank among Earth’s oldest animal residents.

On Wednesday, in one studio published in Nature magazine, Turner testifies out his case for this hypothesis, suggesting the microstructures discovered in the ancient Little Dal’s coral reefs are indeed sponge microfossils, making them nearly 350 million years older than current oldest animal ever described.

It’s a big claim – e one this is sure to discuss – but Fritz Neuweiler, a geologist at Laval University in Quebec who he was not affiliated with with the studio, called the work “a good step forward”, noting that the document is” grounded, courageous and provocative “.


Over 890 million years ago, the Earth was very different place. Wax just one supercontinent, known as Rodinia. North America was in the center of this huge land mass, with Everyone of the other continents huddled on its edges. Little Dal cliff system it was hidden inside, submerged by shallow ocean waters.

The reef was full of life in that time, mainly occupied by microbes like cyanobacteria, or algae, which use the sun to produce energy just like installations. Stromatolites, mats of bacteria that can grow up to one meter high, they were also gift. Turner says she would have liked to snorkel over it.

“Would be like this beautiful meadow of stromatolites, would have been colored blue-green because of cyanobacteria and would have been, like, very slimy, “she says.

A “strange” fossil from 890 million years ago could be proof of very early animal life

Elizabeth Turner a work, in the field, on Baffin Island, Nunavut.

C. Gilberto.

However, you wouldn’t be in able to see these sponges: they were tiny. Today’s sponges are coming in a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes, but they are predominantly composed of the “demospongne”, which are true survivors, survivors of all major extinctions event.

In time of Little Dal reef, sponges could not compete for surfaces exposed to the sun, so they probably existed in the in-between the spaces; in between rocks and cracks, in between cavities and perhaps out on the hips of even the cliff.

Living close to cyanobacteria, Turner says, it would have been very useful for sponges. The cyanobacteria would produce oxygen, which the sponges can use, and “probably would have provided a source of even food, because cyanobacteria produce polysaccharides, “he said says. Sponges have no mouth or organs, in as such, but let the food flow into the water, in And out of their bodies. Life next the door for the algae was like life next to a buffet and an oxygen factory all in one time. Turner calls it “nirvana” for the sponges.

As the world changed, coral reefs have disappeared, but the potential signs of sponges do not. During the life of the sponges they incorporated crystals of the mineral calcite – calcium carbonate – in their skeletons. Coral reefs have been buried over time, but the calcite remained, leaving fossils within the rock for Turner to examine them 890 million years ago.


If Turner’s findings were confirmed, they could, literally, rewrite them history.

Turner points a lot of first research done by other groups in the last 10 years, looking at the sponge body fossils in the Phanerozoic. The Phanerozoic era began about 541 million years ago, right around the Cambrian explosion, when animals begin appear everywhere in the fossil record. The earlier most definitive fossil evidence for the sponges come from this period, and a lot of work it was made to explore how signs of creatures can survive to the present day. “In last some years there has been promising work on how the sponges are preserved “, he says.

Turner calls it slow science. she was in degree of build his hypothesis off the back of clear evidence in the literature of younger sponges and thinks his interpretation makes sense. However, it does not put a definitive one full to stop on it. “It would be silly to be overly confident “, Turner says. “I want acknowledge that what I am doing is giving an informed suggestion. ”

Left: the uncovered microstructures in rock music in the ancient Piccolo From the reef.

Right: fragment of the skeleton of a modern keratous sponge.

CE Turner

And the truth is, the scientists have been here with sponges and first years of life before.

Some prove suggest that the sponges may have arisen up to that point back like 800 million years ago, but they are missing prove physical. A studio 2016 claimed to have discovered indicative molecules of sponges in 650 million-year-old rock. Further analysis of these molecules from a different group of scientists, including Jochen Brocks, a geobiologist at the Australian National University, have suggested that these molecules were likely formed of algae and geological forces, not sponges.

This means that Brocks is not unknown with overturn the claims of the “oldest animal ever”.

But Brocks isn’t trying to pour cold water on Turner’s ideas, on the contrary. “I would like like these things to be sponges, because it would be very exciting, “he has says. However, he cites the case of Namapoikia, an organism known from microstructures in limestone which was originally regarded as known animal life before that prove later showed that it may actually be bacteria. That case of studio shows science works perfectly, and is a good reminder to keep an open mind when it comes to early animals in absolute.

“Particularly in carbonate, the more one wonderful and biological-looking things can grow just simply rearranging and regrowing the crystals, “he notes.

Unfortunately, the Little Dal reef system it’s enough unique, making it difficult to find similar microstructures from other formations in all the world. “There are no other examples of that guy of barrier Reef in that particular age of rock “, Turner says. Find more examples of these microstructures and confirming that they are body fossils of ancient the sponges, therefore, will take time.

But after two decades of thinking about what these structures might be, Turner is used to going slow. These structures may not have been formed by sponges at all, but something also more exotic that we have not yet considered.

“We are negotiating with this this depth of time here, “she says. “Maybe there was some other type of body that made a three-dimensional anastomosing lattice, right? We don’t really do that know. They were looking. “

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